Copyright 2024 SPARK

CEO Podcast: Cynthia Wilbanks, Peterson Rudgers Group

April 9, 2024 Podcasts

In this episode, host Paul Krutko welcomes Cynthia Wilbanks, a senior advisor with the Peterson Rudgers Group and former chair of Ann Arbor SPARK’s Board of Directors. They delve into Cynthia’s pivotal role in shaping early SPARK initiatives and fostering economic development partnerships. Cynthia shares anecdotes about navigating challenges like Pfizer’s campus closure, and offers valuable advice for future leaders, stressing the importance of attention to detail and personal connections.


Paul Krutko: Welcome to Ann SPARK’s CEO podcast, Conversations on Economic Opportunity. My name is Paul Krutko and I’m the president and CEO of Ann Arbor SPARK.

In celebration of Ann SPARK’s 20th anniversary, we’re going to have a series of podcast episodes with our past chairpersons of the SPARK Board of Directors. Each will share their unique perspectives on SPARK’s impact over the past two decades, proud moments during their tenure, and their thoughts on the future of the Ann Arbor region.

Today we welcome Cynthia Wilbanks, chair of the Ann SPARK Board of Directors from 2015 to 2018. After 22 years as vice president of the University of Michigan’s government relations program, she retired in early 2021. Known for her ability to create strong relationships with leaders in government and nonprofit organizations, she played a crucial role in various projects at U of M, including advocating for stem cell research and navigating challenges to the city’s affirmative action policies. 

Cynthia currently works with the Peterson Rudgers Group as a senior advisor, and I must say was one of the main people behind creating what we know as Ann Arbor SPARK. We’re really interested in talking with Cynthia today, so thanks for joining us. 

Cynthia Wilbanks: You are welcome, Paul. It’s my pleasure. I’ve been thinking back to the days when SPARK was in its infancy, so this has been a good time for me to reflect and I appreciate your asking me to be on. 

Paul: That’s great. So what was your initial involvement with SPARK and what motivated that involvement? 

Cynthia: I do think that the timeframe, and you’re looking back now at 20 years, the timeframe for the decision-makers at the University [of Michigan] in the economic development community, the business community, even governmental units within our community, were open to a new way of thinking about economic development. And you may say that there were some trends, national trends that people in the Ann Arbor area were paying attention to. I have to say that there was some very strong interest on the part of the University to think about its own economic development responsibilities and opportunities and the vehicles to achieve some of those goals and aspirations were not entirely within the University. It did rely on partnerships. 

So my involvement really started as a matter of a set of conversations, frankly, within the University and then outside the University, starting with the president of the University at the time, Mary Sue Coleman, and the VP for research, who really orchestrated an enterprise-wide set of activities to start moving the University in the direction of greater economic development, intentionality. And as a result of being a part of the University’s leadership team, we were ready when then-entrepreneur himself, Rick Snyder, came to the University and suggested that we start really in serious discussions about forming a new economic development organization for Washtenaw County. So my involvement was from the very start, I confess, to being a big cheerleader for that type of opportunity. 

Sometimes I think universities have been, and I think rightfully so, criticized in the past for being aloof and being that little place across the street that isn’t all that engaged. And I was a big proponent of being more open and looking for ways that the University could make a bigger impact. 

Paul: So do you have any particularly memorable SPARK experience or project that stands out to you or maybe multiple ones, I would imagine, over the time you’ve been involved? 

Cynthia: Well, it’s starting from the beginning, again, there were meetings scheduled on a regular basis in the earliest days of trying to come together and decide on a new format for economic development. Rick Snyder and Mary Sue Coleman were the two chairs, co-chairs, of that. We were in roles that were supportive of their work and really did a lot of the follow-on work to achieve some of the objectives that were being articulated. Mary Sue Coleman herself really sounded the bell by playing off a long-held view in the academic community that you had to publish or perish. And she modified that to say, yes, of course, that’s important, but you must partner or perish. And on that foundation, I think those earliest memories of sitting at a table talking with people who we didn’t always talk to and agreeing on a set of objectives, agreeing on a vision of what economic development could be, stands out in my memory as really the hard work. And those were the earliest years. 

I can certainly point to momentous events including, and I’m pretty sure I won’t be the only one to mention this, including the decision of Pfizer to close its campus. And that certainly was maybe one of the first big tests of what a SPARK organization could help to organize and achieve on behalf of a community that was facing, for the first time in a very long time, a major disruption in its economic infrastructure. 

Paul: So do I have that right? Because I think in conversations that I’ve had, and I had some conversations with President Coleman in the past, that initially Rick’s ask, or the conversation with the University, was focusing on the entrepreneurial early-stage company side. And that what I’ve shared with a lot of people was because you’ve organized that, I call it a platform, the various sectors were together, that then when Pfizer happened, because the conversations had already been going on, it was natural for you all to work through SPARK and in concert with the University to attack that particular problem. Do I have that right? 

Cynthia: I think what you’re describing, Paul, is largely right. I mean, the infrastructure had to be in place. You just don’t throw up something and pray and hope that it works. You have to start organizing functions within the University to help support certain objectives. And I do think there was a foundation to the activities of the University in the entrepreneurial space, the emphasis on entrepreneurial education, the emphasis on startups, the emphasis on technology transfer, all of those elements combined with, and it’s important for me to say this, the attraction of talent not only to the University but to the community, were fundamental building blocks of a relationship that then could help to navigate the challenges of a Pfizer deciding to leave Ann Arbor. 

Paul: So it was interesting because as we talk to each chair, there are memories about that and what happened with that. And when we explored with another one of your colleagues and past chairs, Steve Forrest, was sort of what happened with the life science facility in Plymouth, a purposeful facility that somehow we needed to save for the community. Ultimately, it turned into the State of Michigan’s Life Science Innovation Center, but at a particular moment, you all collectively said, we want to save that asset. How do we go about doing that? So it’s interesting just as you go through some of the series. 

So how do you assess the SPARK’s impact on the Ann Arbor region and the broader community? 

Cynthia: That is a very tough question to answer, mostly because it’s so multidimensional in my view, Paul. I think the organization itself has smartly,  over the years and through the leadership of principally two people, Mike Finney first and then Paul Krutko, that the multidimensional aspects of what SPARK has been able to offer, what SPARK has been able to instigate, initiate, organize, deliver on has had an impact in all kinds of ways in this community. Certainly, to an extent in the, I’ll call it traditional economic development role, but it has gone way beyond that in its reach to supporting entrepreneurs, the Boot Camps for those who aspire to start their own businesses and get support doing it, the ways in which the Ann Arbor region redefined itself as greater than the city of Ann Arbor, the immediate countywide impact. And now of course, through its partnerships in Livingston County and beyond, and frankly, you can’t really ignore the fact that it has also had a statewide impact, and that has a lot to say about the sort of initial vision that has been exploited and exploded to benefit economic development in the region, certainly in Ann Arbor, but across the state as well. 

Paul: Well, the next question is something that I know is very dear to your heart in terms of nurturing leadership across the community, across the University. What are some key lessons from your experience that you believe are valuable for future leaders to understand in getting involved in these kinds of initiatives? 

Cynthia: I am a firm believer that leaders have to lead and by example, they do set expectations for the people who they work with, their colleagues, and a broader set of individuals who are just watching on occasion as to what’s happening in an organization with respect to their leaders and the roles that those leaders are playing. I’m, as you said, a big believer in personal commitment to community, in a personal commitment to inviting others to be a part of something bigger than the organization they work for, and certainly a part of the community that they live and work in. And frankly, I think when you take on a leadership role, one of the things you want to make sure you do is encourage and support others to assume those kinds of responsibilities. It’s not easy. You have a day job and the day job includes a lot of responsibilities, that’s for sure. 

But the reward is much richer when you know that you have extended beyond the organizational structure that signs your paycheck to a greater good for the community as a whole. And I think that starts at the top of a lot of organizations who understand the value of that kind of involvement and what that kind of involvement can bring not only back to the organization, but to the community as a whole. So I took it very seriously. I’m still a firm believer in it. And if nothing else, I think leading by example does set the pace. 

Paul: So what do you think looking forward, I mean, we are doing a little bit of a retrospective, we’re talking a little bit about the present. You’ve been in the community for a long time and have played significant roles. Where do you see us in 20 years? I mean, prognostication is difficult, but where do you see the community going from where we are now? 

Cynthia: It’s a great question. I think you always have to have one eye on the future. I don’t think that a static organization serves anyone’s interests very well. And when you look at organizations that change, most don’t change abruptly. Most experience a change over a period of time with a certain set of goals and a recognition that the environment around the particular activities could also be changing. So I see SPARK adapting, and I think one of the ways that an organization can thrive, can sustain itself, is to be open to change. It isn’t always easy. A lot of people get stuck. I had a friend years and years ago who reminded me that the only people who really liked change were babies with wet diapers. And I always used to chuckle about that, but as I thought about it, he was right. So I do think that as organizations appreciate certainly where they are, where they’ve come from, they do have to have an eye on the future. 

And the process of re-imagining of new energy, taking a few risks along the way, should be both celebrated and appreciated. Because I do think that this region still has a lot of upward opportunity. I really believe that. And there’s no question that as a community now that is ever closer to the city of Detroit, the boundaries seem much more fluid. I see lots more opportunities in regards to the reach of the organization, but people have to be open to that change and leadership, and the board of directors of the organization have to understand that it’s not just about what’s now, but what could be in the future. 

Paul: One of the things that I have in my mind thought about with SPARK over the years that is important is that that table setting, as we talked about earlier, really set an ethos for the organization to be as entrepreneurial as the entrepreneurs they were trying to support. And that means that sometimes you stop doing things or you recognize that, well, we did this. Now someone else in the community has seen that opportunity and has picked that up, and what is the next gap that we may need to fill or convene or lead on? So I think that’s one of the things that I have appreciated in my tenure is that that has continued to be sort of the view of the board that we need to always be evolving and playing a role in the community that the community needs. And if the community has picked up something, let’s use ACM as an example, that was something that we initiated, but it’s now, as you know, played a role as a chair of that organization as well. It’s a separate thing. And we didn’t say, oh, we’re going to run ACM. So I think that’s an example where you step into something, step out, do what you needed, what’s appropriate. 

So you touched on this a little bit, but I want to go a little further. What kind of advice do you have, beyond what you’ve already shared, with future leaders? You’ve talked about that sort of engagement in the community, but do you have any other thoughts about, as you’ve nurtured leaders over the years, things that young people, or maybe not so young people who are taking leadership roles need to think about? 

Cynthia: Well, there’s a rule that I’ve followed practically my entire working career, and that’s to pay attention to the small stuff, not get bogged down by it, but pay attention to the small stuff. And for leadership to succeed, you really do have to pay attention. You have to know the people that are sitting across the table from you. You have to take an interest in what is their top priority, what their opportunities or their struggles may be. And as a leader, you don’t want to ever convey that you know it all. You don’t actually, you learn a lot through a process. And being open to learning does give you insights into the ways in which you can be even more effective. So my advice is always to learn as much as you can. You never know when the nugget is going to really come in handy. And I have found that so often in my career. I can’t put a number on it, frankly, but it is important to pay attention. 

People used to joke when I would bring out my prop for a discussion on the work that I did and the importance of relationships, and I’d bring out my old Rolodex and the Rolodex that I first had and the  Rolodex that I left the University with, which ended up being about four ginormous ones, are something that I use as an example of why connectedness happens. Now you don’t need a Rolodex anymore, you can put it all on your phone or your laptop, but the point is the same. 

Paul: Sure is, sure is. And I think that’s one of the things that I, maybe in an analogy way that I feel is sort of this organization’s role is to some extent we’re the community’s Rolodex to some extent. A a certain issue comes up — the one I’m reflecting on that we were very proud of is when Covid happened, there wasn’t an entity that could accept the amount of funds coming from foundations, from the state government, from the federal government. And because we had those connections, we could do that convening and then deliver 16 million of assistance to businesses that if we didn’t word that community Rolodex, we wouldn’t have been able to put those people together. 

Well, is there anything else as we sum up here, any final thoughts you have that you’d like to share? 

Cynthia: Well, first of all, thank you again for inviting me to participate in these 20th anniversary events in this podcast. Let me just add one other observation that I think is very important. And I think it’s important for not only the organization but for the community and communities it serves. SPARK is an organization that has been willing to be accountable. And when I think back about the systems that were put in place and the challenges that the organization had to face throughout these past 20 years, the willingness to be accountable to your stakeholders in every corner— the organizations that sat on your board, the organizations with whom you had a relationship for a financial transaction, or the fiduciary for other entities— that accountability is one that I think might be underappreciated. Because what it does, frankly, and done well provides the kind of confidence and confidence in a dynamic organization is absolutely essential to success. And I look back on my journey with SPARK and feel like I did have a role in not only encouraging on some occasions, some would say demanding, accountability. And I do think that it has really served the organization well. The leaders who have really signed up to both endorse and personally interact with SPARK, I think would say the same thing. And it gives me a lot of confidence in the future of the organization and an organization that I was privileged to serve. 

Paul: Well, Cynthia, thanks so much for sharing all these thoughts with us today. One of the things, that is a personal note, some of this is we do questions in the script, but I did very much enjoy the time that you were chair and working with me. You helped me greatly and being able to see things I needed to see and to go on the path that I needed to help lead the organization for. So I do really want to acknowledge our working relationship, and then it continued, as I mentioned a little earlier. You took on another big task of chairing the American Center for Mobility, and I guess I took on the task of being treasurer. So we had a lot to do with that as well. 

Cynthia: We did.

Paul: Lots of things to figure out and to work on. So anyway, thank you again for your time and I look forward to seeing you at the annual meeting. 

Cynthia: I as well. Thank you. 

Paul: And I want to thank our audience for listening and learning more about those leaders and organizations working hard to create the Ann Arbor Region’s economic future. These conversations are brought to you by Ann Ann SPARK. For more information about SPARK, you can find us on the web and on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn.

Cynthia Wilbanks’ Bio

Cynthia Wilbanks, a senior advisor with the Peterson Rudgers Group, is an expert in building relationships that expand spheres of influence for organizations and individuals. With more than 40 years of engagement in public service, Wilbanks has staffed members of Congress, managed a public policy nonprofit, and served as the University of Michigan’s vice president for government relations for 22 years. The breadth of her experience extends to university relations as well. She joined the University of Michigan as associate vice president for university relations in 1995 and later served in interim roles as vice president of communications in 2007 and vice president of development for the 2002–03 academic year. Wilbanks was the university’s longest-serving executive officer when she retired in 2020.

During her time at U-M, Wilbanks leveraged her relationships with legislators across the state to revitalize and renovate campus buildings, including securing substantial investment in the School of Dentistry. She was integral to the university’s efforts on behalf of affirmative action and to gaining permission for embryonic stem cell research. She led the institution’s involvement in the creation of the University Research Corridor, a consortium of Michigan’s three research universities, and served as special advisor to the university president on the development and growth of the corridor, as well as on other economic development activities. Her commitment to creating bridges heightened the visibility of the university and its president.

Prior to joining the University of Michigan, Wilbanks served as a staff assistant for US Representative Marvin Esch from 1973 to 1976, and as a county field representative and then district director for US Representative Carl D. Purcell, from 1977 to 1992. From 1993 to 1995, she was president of Michigan’s Children, a nonprofit organization focused on creating effective public policy for children and families. In 1994, Wilbanks was a candidate from Michigan’s 13th Congressional District.

A graduate of the University of Michigan, Wilbanks holds a bachelor’s degree in political science and a secondary teaching certificate. An active member of the community, she has served in leadership roles with nonprofit organizations throughout her career, including her current role on the steering committee for the Center for Michigan, a nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank. She has been recognized with multiple honors and awards, including being named among the 100 Most Influential Women in Metro Detroit by Crain’s Detroit Business in 2002 and Woman of the Year by Washtenaw United Way in 2017.